Friday, April 30, 2004

CSJ for May
The Common Sense Journalism column for May is now available (click on link on right). This month I propose that maybe it's time to rethink some style and usage rules, among them: repeating percent after every number, requiring another to compare equal things and restricting none in most cases to the singular "not one."

Still a way to get to one of the best financial sites
Thomson, the financial publisher, has taken down most of its Web sites. But there's still a way to get to Thomsoninvestnet , a relatively unknown site that has good quick company financial profiles with the kind of ratios, etc., that journalists can use. Instead of going to, put in your browser. Don't know how long it will be there, but for now it seems to be humming along unattended and automated.

Give the readers a little more time
I'm probably coming late to this party, but just noticed the Boston Globe has restricted its archives so that only today and yesterday are free. While I think it's perfectly fine to charge for archives, at least give the readers a chance. Leave articles open for five days or a week -- about the time it takes for me to take this week's pile out to the garbage. That seems to be a reasonable compromise.

Is that inconsistent with my musings on whether some forms of journalism ought to be pay as you go? Not really. If you are going to allow free access, then allow reasonable time for people to read and think about it, and perhaps come back to it. That's different than knowing upfront that I, as a reader, will have to pay for all versions of specific content.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Paying for Journalism
A follow to my long post the other day wondering whether journalism can be free. A nice thread is going at the Washington Monthly about newspaper site registration. Most registrations are free, of course, but it's the first step toward the Wall Street Journal model. I don't agree with the doomsayers who say all this registration means the end of blogging etc. But there is a good discussion on here worth watching. Some insightful posts.
Thanks to mediadrop for the pointer.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Presumptive, Part 2

A few posts ago (April 8), I opined as to how the use of "presumptive" in campaign stories (as in presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry), while technically correct, might not be a good idea because a number of our readers likely would misinterpret it as presumptuous.
Using presumptive has become the fashionable thing this election season. I stopped counting at 100 times I heard or read it in one recent week. Well, the question arises, how likely -- really -- is it that the word would be misinterpreted? So I conducted a little experiment. I built this sentence into the usage part of one of my weekly copy-editing class quizzes:

Smith said it was presumptive/presumptuous to think he'd do that.

More than a third of the students in this 50-student class chose the incorrect presumptive. That a third of the students, juniors and seniors who are journalism majors, misinterpreted that when the words and explanations are in their textbook, says one of two things. First, you can fashion your own comment about journalists and journalism education. But seriously, it indicates that confusion is just as likely among our readers for whom the daily paper does not come with a dictionary.

Now, I don't mind occasionally sending readers to the dictionary when the word is the exact right word and there's no really good substitute or misinterpretation. An occasional ersatz or eponymous does the soul good. But when there are really good substitutes for presumptive (likely, expected) that don't lead to misinterpretation, we should use them.

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Friday, April 23, 2004

Machete, please
It's leads like this that cause the public to go dead on our reporting.
Baghdad, Iraq -- In the first sign of progress toward resolving the tense situation in Fallujah, coalition officials Monday issued a joint statement with civic leaders from the besieged city calling on armed insurgents there to turn in their heavy weaponry to avoid a new offensive by U.S. Marines.

Let me catch my breath. That's 46 words to fight through. The day of the week's in an awkward place; it uses "weaponry"; it repeats Fallujah three times (Fallujah, the besieged city, there), as if we didn't get it the first time, etc.

We can do better and actually get folks to read our stuff in the process, even the stories, like this one, that are about process.

Baghdad, Iraq -- Armed insurgents in Fallujah got a joint message from civic leaders and coalition officials Monday: turn in your heavy weapons or risk a new assault by U.S. Marines. It was the first sign of progress toward resolving the tense situation in that city.

Only three words fewer, but I think it reads about 20 words shorter.
If the two-sentence lede bothers you and you still like backing into your stories with prepositional phrases, try this:
Baghdad, Iraq -- In the first sign of progress toward resolving the tense situation in Fallujah, armed insurgents got a joint message from civic leaders and coalition officials Monday: turn in your heavy weapons or risk a new assault by U.S. Marines.

Only 39 words.

Will they never learn?
I just sit and shake my head at the arrogance of the Pentagon folks who think they can control the images of coffins of dead soldiers (Washington Post story, r.r.). Like water, powerful information and images seep and trickle -- and in the long run do more damage to the folks who try to suppress them. (North Korea appears to have been quicker to figure this out than the knuckleheads in the five-sided building.) Consider: Had the Pentagon just allowed these photos out a few at a time as they were shot, chances are they would have faded into the background of the white noise that much of our media world has become. (I already sense Iraq fatigue; one editor in discussing an injured soldier told me the other day it's a hard enough sell to get stories about the dead in.) Instead, they are attracting how many untold tens of thousands of hits on, which pried them loose with an FOIA request. (I don't know how many hits; I only know it just took me 10 minutes to get on the site, its servers are so overloaded.)

I loved the reaction from one news exec in essence that "we didn't ask for them because we didn't know they existed." Sounds like a heck of a reporting job to me. Whatever happened to the idea that sometimes you go fishing to see what you catch?

A very nice continuing discussion, with images, is at the blog.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The AP road show continues
Tom Curley continues spreading the gospel -- AP style -- about the silent giant's push into new media. The latest installment, which focuses on his desire to provide content formatted for portable devices, is here.

(Isn't it great the way AP can have its own writers write about itself? What PR agency wouldn't kill for that?)

The take by Rafat Ali, of, on all this: "Good to know..wake me up when that happens."

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Who's watching the store?
Excellent article by Randy Dotinga in The Christian Science Monitor about the damage done by Kelley, Blair, et al. to journalism.
Some select quotes say it all:

But few editors are making major changes in the way they do business.

Still, the public is watching, says David House, ombudsman at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Whether readers recall details is one thing. What they do have is a perception that something is very wrong in American journalism."

What a great idea!
Tom Mangan, at his Prints the Chaff blog suggests getting as many bloggers out to the Giants-Athletics game on June 27 as possible to get the "widest range of perspectives."
Dang, my frequent flier miles just ran out, Tom.
But let's think a minute. What about a moblog at your local rec center on those game nights? At my local center, where until this year I coached, there were eight or 10 games going on a night. If you're an editor and you want to bolster traffic to your site, why not arrange with a few people to moblog all those tykes' games. You don't think mom and dad and grandpa and grandma will be e-mailing those links far and wide -- and that puts more eyeballs on your advertisers. (sigh. see below.)
Sure there will be management issues. So you work with a select few people and put in some parameters. You'll have to decide if it's worth the work back in your shop to increase your traffic.

Hey, Tom, have a hot dog for me!

Maybe information needs to be free, but does journalism?
You must read this article from AdAge. (reg. req. but a hint: if you pop "sears" into the quick search, the article, "Marketers press for product placement in magazine text," will come up on the search and you can click right to it.)
Now a growing number of marketers want to persuade the nation's print magazines to open the text of their editorial pages to product placement.
We're not talking "advertorials" here -- but where the editorial matter itself becomes the product placement. One executive quoted in the article notes that other media don't have the "ankle-weights" of the traditional separation of "church and state" that print journalism has. Another notes: "Advertisers are asking for what they want on TV, and they're getting it."
Pardon me while I shudder.
But this isn't about hand-wringing over breaching "the wall." With due respect to the "information wants to be free" folks, it's about asking, "Well, maybe, but how much of journalism should be free?"

This is not about separating Big-J journalism from little-j. First, I hope you've gathered from this Web log that I am a big supporter of the little-j and fear that the established news factories risk ignoring the opportunities and challenges at their peril. Those new independent journalists, in this country's long history of such endeavors, may be the ones who have the nimbleness and willingness to dig into the deepest, dankest corners of our society and institutions. Yet, they must be able to eat.
Big-J, for all its many faults, still is the best positioned and provisioned to take up those worthy threads and press them on the large scale needed in today's world of big government, big business, big education, etc., and occasionally uncover "the big one" on its own. (If you're buying the beer, we can debate all night whether those media companies will do that, but for now let's assume the journalistic flame still flickers deep inside the beasts.)

Both Big-J and little-J thus must be freed from the tyranny of a mediated economic system.

Newsprint and TV, with their heavy embedded costs, have difficulty doing that (though with the proliferation of cable channels sucking up whatever moves, the possibility is there for TV). The Web or similar electronic forms, with their relatively small marginal costs, can.

Journalism, while being a public service, is a business. And in the business world, they keep score by how much money you make. Independence is "earned" (or perhaps bought) by running up that score. But no other major business I know of has the kind of filter that journalism has between its customers and its bottom line. You might garner a tremendous audience, bit if it's not the "right" audience, the advertisers won't run up the score for you.

If journalism's true value is to be measured, the filter must be lifted. Not all of it should be behind a pay-as-you-go wall, but truly significant but essentially niche work (investigative reporting, perhaps) might well have to go this way to survive. This will start the hand-wringing over how democracy will suffer. But I'd suggest that as journalists, our roles in democracy already are suffering, and it's because we have so devalued truly significant journalism that it has blended into the white noise that has become our information society.

This might seem like blasphemy; after all, wasn't I the beneficiary of free access to that AdAge article? Yes, and it makes me wonder how much I would be willing or able to pay for such things, which raises some questions that should be vigorously debated: Is there a baseline of information and journalism that should be free? In an information-based society, should every person have the right to some basic amount of access (akin to the Universal Service Fund idea in the utility industry)? How much should be charged for the rest, if anything? Can a free market in information serve our society's needs or will information and, by extension journalism, come to be looked at like a utility? How might that change what we do?

As we move even farther into the information society, I suspect these questions will increasingly become political ones. If we as journalists do not get into this debate early enough to start framing it for our desires and needs, I fear we will once again have things decided for us, to the detriment of us all.

Now, if you want to be further vexated, read AdAge's accompanying article about IntelliTXT that turns words in a story into commercial messages when you roll your pointer over them and click. The danger is that in pursuit of revenue and to cast off those "ankle-weights," articles will be seeded with such words.

Unfortunately, this newspaper Web site does not come with an atlas ...
Peter Zollman, on the Poynter E-Media Tidbits blog, makes an interesting and all-too-true observation about visiting one Midwest newspaper's Web site.
"Trouble was, I couldn't find any clues to where the heck I was. The newspaper is "The Telegraph: Serving the River Bend Since 1836." But where? There's no location shown. And the dateline on the story is Kane. Well, where's that? And some of the ads have no area codes. (The real estate ad does, but the Ford dealer's does not.) And the web address is a Zwire URL, meaning I can't identify the paper's location that way."

This is an editing issue. It is editors who set and maintain a newspaper's image and tone. How many of them would let a news story through without proper geographic identification? So why aren't they thinking about these sorts of things on their Web site? Yes, this is the new reality we must face as editors; our jobs are much broader than just getting the stories into "The Paper." We now must be cognizant of all the other aspects of our particular publishing operation and how the journalism, which includes our media outlets' tone and image, works across media.

As a side note, I' not all that impressed with papers that use Zwire. It seems to say "we're too cheap to invest much in our own product." It's a template system, much like the ones that have drawn such derision in the television world. (Disclaimer here: My school has gotten World Now, one of those suppliers, to donate a turnkey system to replace our locally produced pages. I'm not all that thrilled, but one of my colleagues has taken great pains to ensure that we can -- and will -- almost completely customize the interface so that we're not just shoveling.) And what does it say that Zwire's home page talks about all the wonderful business opportunities, but has no link that I can find to search for a newspaper on its site?

For now, it's a compromise, I guess, so that some smaller papers can have a decent Web presence. But remember, always assume your readers/users know more than you do. How long will they hang in there if you don't innovate?

Friday, April 09, 2004

"(Using parentheses in quotes) seemed like a good idea," he said.
If you are using parentheses in quotes, it usually means you need to take a hard look at what you've written. Parentheses in quotes are:

  • Weak, disruptive writing.

  • A signal that you likely have not set up the quote correctly.

  • An invitation for readers to trust us even less, wondering what we've left out, covered up, changed or added.

It's that last one that bothers me the most at a time when we have trouble enough maintaining our credibility. And please, let's not start with the square brackets vs. parentheses thing -- that's a journalistic affectation that has no meaning to readers. (Go ahead, take me up on this bet: Go out on the street and ask 20 people if they know the difference between parentheses and square brackets in your paper. If you can find just five, we'll think of something special for you.) And my paper doesn't come with a user's manual or decoder ring.
Parentheses are especially jarring to begin a quote.
And finally, parentheses too often subtly tell the reader you're too stupid to understand in context what originally was said. Not a winning strategy in my book.

Here's one from a paper this morning on a mall that will require escorts for those younger than 18 on weekend nights:
Several customers have complained about groups of juveniles blocking mall corridors, said Rich Davis, store manager at J.C. Penney. He said the new policy is sure to increase sales.
"(Customers) have told me they won't shop here at night," Davis said. "(The mall) is a hangout. Unfortunately, some parents think they can drop off kids that are 14, 15, even younger. This is not a baby-sitting service."

I'm betting that under (Customers) was the word they. If so, is anyone going to think they refers to anyone other than customers given the lead-in? And if it was something else -- something so weird it had to be covered up -- move Customers outside the quote.
What about (The mall)? My bet: It covered up this or it. Again, is anyone likely to really think that refers to anything other than the mall? But OK, maybe someone might think it refers to J.C. Penney. Then move it outside the quote and pick up the quote in progress.
So if we say we need (Customers) and (The mall) -- both debatable -- then handle it this way:

Several customers have complained about groups of juveniles blocking mall corridors, said Rich Davis, store manager at J.C. Penney. He said the new policy is sure to increase sales.
Customers "have told me they won't shop here at night," Davis said.
The mall "is a hangout," he said. "Unfortunately, some parents think they can drop off kids that are 14, 15, even younger. This is not a baby-sitting service."

Editors should take a hard look whenever they come across parenthetical material in quotes. Once in a great while, perhaps. But I can't think of a time I've seen one begin a quote that couldn't be strengthened.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Working with Words

Blog worth noting
If you enjoy these kinds of conversations, check out another fine blog on the language and journalism, Working with Words at Blogspot (not affiliated with the book mentioned below).


Repeat after me: This is not a margin

If Reuters, which specializes in numbers, can't get it right, what hope is there? But we battle on.
In a story yesterday about the vote turning down a Wal-Mart in California, Reuters wrote:
Voters in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood have rejected by a 2-1 margin a ballot measure that would have allowed Wal-Mart to build a sprawling shopping center in the heart of their town.

A reminder: It's impossible to have a xx-to-xx margin in anything. The xx-xx or xx-to-xx form signals a ratio (unless you're reporting actual votes).
Margin means the difference of one figure over another. So if Reuters had actually given us the vote totals, say 20,000 to 10,000, that would be a 10,000-vote margin.
Those California voters turned aside Wal-Mart by a 2-1 ratio.

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Can we stop being 'Presumptive'?

Yes, I know saying so-and-so is the "presumptive" nominee or candidate is correct, but why can't we just use the more common term "likely"?
A quick informal questioning (highly unscientific) of some students and adults in various organizations to which I belong showed that a significant amount of time, when asked what presumptive meant to them, they confused it with presumptuous. In other words, the word, correct or not, has tonal and usage problems that "likely" does not. (So much so that the authors of "Working with Words" point it out as a problem in their usage section.)

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Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Grammar Quiz
Here's a pretty neat grammar quiz. Unfortunately, doesn't give you the answers, beyond telling you whether you are a "Grammar God," a student, an average speaker, a "master" or a "bast..." Well, we'll just leave it at that.

Brevity watch
Another installment in the occasional series ...
It made him angry = it angered him (let your verbs do the work)
A four-mile stretch = four miles (As in: Trash was strewn along a four-mile stretch of the highway = Trash was strewn along four miles of the highway.)

More can be found in this month's Common Sense Journalism column (the link is on the right sidebar).

Congratulations to old colleague Mitch Weiss and the other members of the Toledo Blade team that won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Their work on the atrocities committed by Tiger Force in Vietnam was outstanding, both in print and on the Web.
I spend a fair amount of time judging contests, and every year, of course, there is a lot of deserving work that can't be honored. But it's always nice to see one of the "big ones" awarded outside the N.Y.-Wash.-L.A. axis.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Somewhere in the next decade, and perhaps sooner, if you work in a newsroom there's likely to be a "map" in your future.

I'm not talking here about the plot-the-data-with-GIS-and-create-pretty-graphics stuff that's become the rage of newsrooms, but about "newsmaps" -- the way you literally see the stories and newsfeeds come into your computer.
The way we do things now is inefficient -- line upon line of incoming or queued stories, with little real ranking as to importance. It runs afoul of George Miller's "Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," the widely cited article that, to simplify, suggests that when we handle things linearly, our ability to process the information is severely limited.

Your current editorial system might distinguish wire copy marked "urgent" from that marked "regular" or "advance," but I'm not aware of any that truly show you the importance and flow based on criteria you (or those above you) have set. A "map" changes that. For an example, go to's "Marketmap." You'll instantly get a broader and richer grasp of what is happening on the stock markets.

Some early attempts at newsmapping looked more like topographical maps -- not overly useful in a newsroom. But now developer Marcos Weskamp has come out with something very much like Marketmap, "newsmap," that uses the Google News aggregator to produce a representation of the moment's stories and the intensity of coverage for each. It's a little clunky, but keep an eye on it.

If you combine this idea with AP's goal of delivering its "stream" in a way that puts all the multimedia elements on the desktop (see my March 12 post on that), this takes on some significance. There really may be no good way to deliver multimedia content so that editors can efficiently manage without some sort of "newsmap."

Friday, April 02, 2004

Simple is good, but ...
J.A. Montalbano has some good observations on Testy Copy Editors. A sample:
I uppercased K.D. Lang's name in a story the other day. It felt good to do so. It looked good.
We got no angry calls from readers or Ms. Lang's people.
I began to have yellow cartoon visions of bangerless Yahoos. ...
We can make things simple and generic without losing meaning or distinction.

Well, yes ... and no. We often make things much more complicated than needed. And let's just call it the "athletics" director and, as Montalbano suggests, forget this hypercorrectness of determining whether a school uses "athletics" or "athletic." (Note to AP: those folks are directors of "athletics," not "athletic." An "athletic director" is one who is a pretty good athlete.)

I might go along with lowercasing all the "the"s in newspaper names, though what do you do about "The State," a newspaper here in South Carolina? It's those exceptions that prove thorny. And I'm a disciple of AP and Wall Street Journal style when it comes to uppercasing only the first letter of corporate names, despite companies like SCANA and GTECH, that want us to SHOUT their names from our pages. I like the idea of K.D. Lang and Matchbox Twenty.

But the bottom line is that these are names, and I'm afraid Montalbano's note might make a little too light the importance of those names to the people and companies who have them. I dislike the commercialization of names so that now everyone's name, if he or she chooses, effectively becomes a product placement. So simplify away -- but be sure you have thought it out thoroughly and can defend your position. These are very personal decisions. After all, what if it were your name?

Columnist under attack
A disgruntled South Carolina alumnus has launched a Web site to get columnist Ron Morris of The State fired. (Read story in The Gamecock, USC's student newspaper (reg. req.).)

This fan is upset that Ron has written some things critical of coach Lou Holtz. I happen to think Ron does a good job, but then I gave up idol worship a few years ago. But it's a good example of the new reality -- as journalists we have to take into account reader feedback and pay heed. It's sort of like the old rough-and-tumble days when there were multiple newspapers in a market (or AP and UPI competed), and it was no holds barred. This is a good thing.

While the Web site owner calls Ron a "moron," I happen to think this is one of the more moronic lines from the site: "Even though Ron admits that he never played any kind of college athletics and was at best an average athlete in high school, Ron has become an expert on all things related to sports." If that's the case, then unless this guy can show me he is an expert on newspapering ...
(If you haven't guessed by now, I hate intellectually specious arguments, including the one I just made.)